The Best Christmas Gift I Could Ever Receive

You never know when one simple act might have long term implications, even long after you’ve forgotten it.

Last week, my wife Mary and I went to the Perea Christmas party, as we always do when the holidays approach. Perea is the preschool in N. Memphis that Church Health has run for almost 18 years. We have 149 three- and four-year-old students enrolled this year, and our teachers make a profound difference in their lives.

The Christmas party was fun, as it always is; after years of parties, Alicia Norman and her staff have perfected the party agenda down to the minute. We begin with dinner, and then the kids present their program. The children sing carols they worked weeks to learn, hand motions and all. Then the Three Wise Men, Mary, Joseph and a baby doll Jesus reenact the Christmas story. Mind you, since Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men are three- and four-year-olds dressed in oversized robes and crowns, wardrobe malfunctions are always par for the course. The party is then wrapped up with a competition between all of us as we sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” This is when Santa arrives, pandemonium breaks out, and Mary and I take our cue to make a break for the car.

This year I got a very special gift. A woman approached me and said, “You won’t remember me, but 29 years ago when Church Health first opened, I brought my daughter to you. I was a young mother and didn’t know what to do when my child began wheezing. I didn’t have insurance. Someone told me about the Church Health Center. So I came.”

She continued. “You were worried when you examined my daughter, Britney. You diagnosed her with asthma. She was the first child you admitted to LeBonheur. Thankfully, she got better in a few days. I have never forgotten how kind you were to us.”

I felt humbled. I was also embarrassed because she was right –  I didn’t remember any of this. She went on. “Britney is here tonight, and her daughter, Journey, is a 4-year-old at Perea. I’ll send her over to talk to you when there is a break.”

I tried to watch the rest of the performance, but I was anxious to meet Britney. After the show wrapped, Britney came straight toward me and embraced me. It was so powerful. I learned that her husband is the admissions counselor at Memphis Theological Seminary. A few weeks ago after I spoke at the Seminary, he went home and told her about me. She interrupted him. “I know him. He was my doctor when I was a little girl.”

Just then, an adorable Perea student still in costume from the manger scene came toward us. “This is Journey,” her momma said. Britney told me that her husband has been offered a job in Austin, Texas, and they will be moving there after Christmas. I couldn’t help but think that God was smiling on me to have these few moments with them.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this story. My chance encounter with Britney, her mother and her daughter could have only happened because we’ve kept the faith in the work we do for 29 years. Day in and day out, our staff, volunteers and supporters keep steady in our mission of healing. Sometimes, as a result of that faith, small miracles happen. Maybe “miracle” is too strong a word; maybe it was just what was supposed to happen. Britney outgrew her asthma. Her mother was strong and was always going to help her succeed, and through Britney, therefore, so will Journey.

My part was small, but I do think the impact of Church Health on this family is evident. I suspect they would agree.

We left the party when Santa arrived. I didn’t need to ask for anything. I already had received the best gift possible.

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Planting Apple Trees While Bullets Fly By

Memphis’ recent mayoral election in many ways turned on the issue of safety in America. Much of the national presidential debate is on the same topic. People seem to be afraid for their personal safety. It is no longer just war in the Middle East but war just down the street from where I live.

This has become much more real for me through events that have happened at or near Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center has run for 16 years in Memphis’ Klondike neighborhood. Four times since the school year began, our preschool, along with the elementary school where we are housed, has gone on lockdown due to a shooting on or near the school’s playground. I didn’t know about the first two occurrences, but then six weeks ago it happened again.

Planting Trees

I rushed to the school as though there was something I could do. John Wayne, I am not. When I arrived, Perea’s principal Alicia Norman calmly explained what had happened. A city-run community center sits right behind the school. During a basketball game, two rival gang members had a disagreement on the court. To settle the dispute, one chased the other out the door firing at him as he ran through the school playground. She then told me about the last episode a few weeks ago when she and another teacher were outside and the bullets went flying past her.

We walked down to the community center and found the one full-time employee. He was nice enough and seemed to fully understand our concern. He then explained to us all the reasons there was nothing he could do.

“If they are not playing basketball, they will be out in the streets taking it out on each other.”

This occurred right after the recent election for mayor. I called my longtime friend AC Wharton, who had just lost his bid to be re-elected mayor. He immediately took my call and swung into action. There were police everywhere. The next day, the chief of police was at the school. A plan was made to erect a chain link fence so that the gang members would be forced to run away from the school, not toward it, if they were trying to escape the community center. We all felt that we had been heard. For a couple of days there were extra police patrols in the neighborhood.

The day after the incident, I bought lasagna for the teachers and took it to them for lunch. Everyone seemed to appreciate the effort and understood there was little else that could be done.

Last week, there was another shooting.

Again, it started at the community center. This time it began with a craps game that went bad. The fence kept those involved from running toward the school, but the shooters got in their car and drove multiple times through our parking lot looking for the person they had shot. When the police arrived, Alicia showed them the bullet casings and drops of blood on the pavement. An hour later, they found the man who had been shot.

I called one of the Church Health Center’s board members, who is now working closely with the new mayor. She listened closely and understood my concern. She pointed out that the police department is woefully understaffed with police officers.

Nevertheless, the next day, an all-seeing police eye-in-the-sky camera appeared in our parking lot. The chief of police was again at Perea. Surely this will be a deterrent to anyone who might be afraid of getting caught. Won’t it? Don’t you think? I wonder how long they will keep it there.

Since the first of the year, there have been 12 murders in Memphis.

I stand behind what we are doing at Perea, and I know our parents are committed to seeing their children grow up to live long, happy, productive lives. Through our work at Perea, we are trying to reverse the statistics that tell us that many of our boys will end up in gangs and in jail. One or more of them could be the target of a shooting or the one holding the gun.

Last Friday, a dozen volunteers from the Memphis Empty Bowls Project packed a mountain of food so that our Perea children and their families could be sent home with healthy meals for the weekend.


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The volunteers were so excited about what they were doing for the children. It brought a tear to my eye and I truly had nothing to do with causing it to happen. Our children are so worth loving and they quickly return that love. I doubt the volunteers know about the shootings. If they did, what would they think?

When asked what he would do if he learned that the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther famously said, “I would still plant my apple tree.”

I intend to stay on top of my friend in the mayor’s office to keep the camera in place. I probably need to bring something other than lasagna for lunch the next time. I also need to find an hour to help with packing the weekend lunches.

When his disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was clear when he placed a child in the center and called all of us who chose to follow him to be like that child.

The name Perea comes from the place where Jesus was when he said, “Let the little children come unto me”.

I think that place could have just as well been named “Memphis”.

 

Tales From India: The Memphis-Mumbai Connection

Tales From IndiaThis is the fifth and final installment of my blog series Tales From India.

Get caught up by clicking here, here, here, and here.

Three weeks in India burned images into my mind I am not likely to ever forget. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we saw signs of the well-known slums. Squatters build shacks that bump up against each other, row after row. Most are not more than 8- x 10-feet in size, yet each one houses about six people. Somehow they have electricity, and satellite dishes for television pop up all over this self-contained community of people whose way of life is poverty.

At the other extreme were places like the Taj Mahal Palace, the hotel terrorists attacked in 2008.

I understand why they chose it. Built in 1905 in the British colonial style, it is the most opulent place I have ever seen. The hotel sits on the Arabian Ocean and lacks for nothing. The terrorists sailed down from Pakistan, hijacked small fishing boats, came ashore in a fishing village near the hotel, entered the hotel, and began killing people.

And then there are the lavish structures built by today’s wealthy. The CEO of the Reliance Group has a house that cost two billion dollars. There are 650 full-time staff, yet only five people actually live there.

Everyone in India seems to accept the waste and disparity. But I don’t understand it.

We also visited a preschool. Shala, our friend who lives in Memphis but whose family lives in Mumbai, helped the school get started. A couple in their 50s opened the school less than a year ago to serve 120 children. The families, Hindus and Muslims, all live in the slums. The parents wash clothes, drive rickshaws, and serve the wealthy.

students in IndiaThe children were waiting for us when we arrived. They looked so much like the beautiful children of Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center operates in a Memphis public school. They sang and danced for us, just the way the Perea children do at Christmas. They all wanted their pictures taken. The boys were messing around and the girls were serious.

A banner on the wall said, “Memphis—Mumbai Connection.” I am so hoping we can connect Perea to this school.

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school in Mumbai The principal talked with us about how the school works. They focus on teaching English, knowing English improves the children’s ability to go to better schools as they get older. Some of the parents told us their hopes for their children—to be policemen, nurses, even one doctor. It costs $200 a year per child. My mouth fell open when I heard that. The cost is so low because the teachers are paid very little. Everyone who works like this is paid very little. For $20,000 a year, they could start a new school. In Memphis, it would take a million dollars a year.

The disparity is so hard to process.

When we walked near our hotel, women holding their babies and begging lined the street. I had been told not to give them anything. There are places they can go for help. We say the same thing about panhandling in Memphis. I know that is true in Memphis in some ways. I was not sure it’s true in Mumbai.

This was the end of our trip. We had one last dinner. The fixed price menu was 6,000 rupees for a buffet.

I wasn’t all that hungry.

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